Friday evening traffic travels along Adobe Road to and from the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, which is seen in the distance on Feb. 7, 2014. (Crystal Chatham / The Desert Sun)
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BASE AT A GLANCE
Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms is a massive training base a few miles off Highway 62 in the High Desert, about an hour away from the Coachella Valley, outside the small city of Twentynine Palms. About 13,000 Marines and 500 sailors are stationed at the base, but as many as 40,000 service members train there each year, using the base’s unique size and facilities to prepare for desert warfare.
Although other bases have more troops, the combat center has the largest footprint of any Marine base in the world. The complex is more than 900 square miles — about 10 times the size of Palm Springs, twice the surface area of the Salton Sea and three-quarters as large as the state of Rhode Island. Much of this land is empty, rugged desert, useful for training troops for deployments to the Middle East. The base also features a mock city, modeled after typical communities in Afghanistan and Iraq, where troops can train in eerily real combat situations.
This desert locale has its disadvantages, too. Of all the Marine bases on U.S. soil, no other base places so many service members so far from major cities. The desert towns around the base are small, with few options for entertainment, leaving the troops with little to do during their free hours.
The military has used this rural desert location for training since 1940, when the Army opened the Twentynine Palms Air Academy. The location became a Navy bombing range during World War II, and was commissioned as a Marine base in 1957. The base became the combat center that exists today in 1979.
The Desert Sun has spent the last year investigating the lives, and untimely deaths, of Marines at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms. Here are some of our key findings:
■ Since 2007, the base in Twentynine Palms has suffered more non-hostile deaths, like car crashes and suicides, than war fatalities. Sixty service members from the base have died in war zones in the Middle East, but at least 64 have died on American soil, mostly in the high desert, while stationed or training at the base.
■ Marines at the Twentynine Palms base have been significantly more likely to be killed in an off-duty vehicle accident than their counterparts at other Marine bases. As of 2002, Marines at Twentynine Palms were three times more likely to die in a traffic crash than the average Marine. Safety measures have made crashes less frequent in recent years, but the base maintains one of the highest fatal crash rates in the Marine Corps.
■ Marines who commit suicide while at the Twentynine Palms base are nearly twice as likely to be under the influence of alcohol at the time of their death. Of the 15 Marines who committed suicide at the base between 2007 and 2012, seven had alcohol in their system at the time of death. This is nearly double the percentage reported by the Marine Corps as a whole. The base suffers an annual suicide rate of about two deaths per year, matching the Marine Corps average of 19 deaths per 100,000 troops. The civilian rate is 12 deaths per 100,000.
■ In one particularly troubling case, a Marine at Twentynine Palms died after military doctors prescribed him six separate medications for post- traumatic stress disorder. The Marine died of “multiple drug toxicity,” and his death was ruled an accident.
After stargazing in the Mojave Desert, Cpl. Donald Fowler gunned the gas pedal on a desolate stretch of two-lane highway, a heavy metal song blaring through his speakers and the headlights of his yellow Ford Mustang piercing the dark.
About 10:30 p.m. on the night of Feb. 7, 2011, Fowler and his passenger, Marine Sgt. Steven Afalla, headed home to the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms.
Fowler had downed a few beers, but he wasn’t drunk. In his pocket, he had a bottle of 20 Oxycodone pills, though he hadn’t taken one that night. But he did have gabapentin, a seizure medication sometimes prescribed for anxiety, in his bloodstream. Mixed with alcohol, gabapentin can make you drowsy.
Fowler, who had been cited for speeding four times in seven years, rounded a curve on Highway 62 topping 90 mph.
The car went over a small hill and the front tires floated off the pavement. Fowler veered right onto a soft sand shoulder. He overcorrected, recrossed both lanes and slammed into a two-foot berm on the other side of the highway. The Mustang tumbled through the desert. The roof ripped off. A guitar flew out of the trunk, still in its case.
When the car stopped rolling, it was upside down. Afalla kicked open his door and squeezed through a narrow opening. He rushed to the other side of the car and tried to yank open Fowler’s door. It barely budged.
Sand and shattered glass burned Afalla’s eyes. He fumbled for his cell phone and called 911.
As he waited for the ambulance, he slumped against the car, smoked a Marlboro and pleaded with his friend.
“Wake up, man, wake up.”
Fowler didn’t move.
Sixteen minutes later, Afalla saw flashing lights. Paramedics sprinted toward him. They asked if he was all right.
“Help my friend,” he said. “He’s not responding.”
Afalla felt a hand on his back.
“We’re going to focus on you now, sir,” a paramedic said.
Fowler, a Purple Heart recipient who survived three deployments to Iraq, died on the side of Highway 62. He was 27.
His death is remarkable for its similarity to those of at least 27 other Marines who have died in off-duty vehicle accidents while stationed in Twentynine Palms since 2007. Five additional Marines who were visiting from other bases also died in the desert surrounding Twentynine Palms during this time period. Together, these fatalities represent more than 10 percent of all Marine off-duty vehicle deaths (305), since 2007, according to the Naval Safety Center.
The Twentynine Palms Combat Center is uniquely isolated: No other Marine base on U.S. soil places so many service members so far from major cities. The desert towns around the base are small, with few options for entertainment. Palm Springs is the closest hub for dining, night life, music, art or shopping, but the resort city sits about an hour from the base, an alluring oasis at the end of a long desert road.
That road is Highway 62, often called Twentynine Palms Highway, a 151-mile route that runs through the Mojave Desert from the Coachella Valley to the Arizona border. A dozen Marines have died on this road since 2007.
The Desert Sun examined each of these deaths during a yearlong investigation of non-hostile military fatalities in the desert. We analyzed thousands of pages of accident reports, autopsies and internal military reports, interviewed combat veterans, police and sheriff’s deputies, scientists and doctors, and dozens of the many Marines and their families based at Twentynine Palms. Absent from our reporting is a response from the Twentynine Palms Marine commander. On three occasions over the past year, The Desert Sun has been denied requests to interview base commander Maj. Gen. David H. Berger.
Vehicle crashes are a large part of what makes this desert more dangerous for off-duty Marines than virtually every other Marine base in the United States, with fatality figures that rival war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since 2007,the base in Twentynine Palms has suffered more non-hostile deaths, like car crashes and suicides, than war fatalities. Sixty service members from the base have died in war zones in the Middle East, but 64 have died on American soil, mostly in the high desert, while either stationed or training at the base.
Car accidents and suicide are the most common causes of death, with alcohol abuse contributing to both causes. Marines who take their own lives while at the Twentynine Palms Combat Center are nearly twice as likely to be under the influence of alcohol as their counterparts at other Marine bases. Other deaths were caused by illness, training accidents, on-duty vehicle crashes, drownings, drug use and homicide. One Marine was shot to death during a drunken altercation with Palm Springs police.
The Twentynine Palms Combat Center has instituted mandatory defensive driver training to lower what was once an astoundingly high fatality risk, but the chances of a high desert Marine dying in an off-duty vehicle accident remain higher than the average Marine.
From 1998 to 2002, Marines at Twentynine Palms were 3½ times more likely to die in an auto accident than the average Marine, according to a study by the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA).
That risk dropped from 2003 to 2007, when Marines at Twentynine Palms were only 1½ times as likely to die in a car crash. CNA researchers said this was “a success story,” praising the Marine base for lowering the fatality risk.
However, since 2007, while off-duty fatal vehicle accidents have been cut in half in the overall Marine Corps, the risk at Twentynine Palms has held steady and remains among the highest of all bases. In 2013, only one Marine from the base died in an off-duty accident, but two civilians were killed in accidents where Marines were at fault. A Marine veteran, who left the Corps about a year ago, died in a car accident in Yucca Valley earlier this month.
“A single mishap is one too many,” said Capt. Justin Smith, a base spokesman. “The Combat Center remains steadfastly committed to reducing the number of mishaps our service members are involved in. Accidents are an unacceptable risk to mission accomplishment. It degrades our effectiveness as a training installation and robs us of our most precious resource — our people.”
Of the 28 local Marines to die in off-duty crashes since 2007, 24 died in Southern California, including 16 in the high desert, and one more in Central California. The final three crashes occurred while high desert Marines were traveling to visit relatives in New Mexico, Georgia and Kansas. Nineteen died in automobile accidents, seven in motorcycle accidents and two as pedestrians.
Many of these accidents were investigated by Curtis Kolb, a deputy of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department who spent more than five years responding to crashes in Twentynine Palms.
When Kolb wasn’t at an accident scene, he led safety briefings at the Marine base, part of a basewide effort to reduce the crash rate. Kolb gave weekly safety briefings during his time at Twentynine Palms, urging each new batch of Marines to protect themselves from the dangers of the desert roads.
“It gives me a huge amount of passion to really try to beat it into their heads to slow down and get a designated driver,” Kolb said.
But it was hard to tell who got the message and who didn’t, Kolb said.
Sometimes the deputy felt like he had truly reached the Marines, convincing them that speed and alcohol could be as deadly as war. But sometimes, long after his briefings were over, Kolb would see the same Marines again, dead on the roadside. Every Marine that transferred to the base was required to sit through his briefings, so he knew every accident victim had heard him speak at least once before. Each body was proof that he wasn’t reaching everybody, he said.
Kolb, a former Army infantryman and Gulf War veteran, said he sees a tragic irony in the stories of Marines who survive a war-torn desert only to die in a peaceful one.
“Any civilian that gets killed is still just as much of a tragedy, but just to have to go to war and then come back and die at home during peacetime,” he said, “it just kind of puts it on a different level of tragic situations.”
Studies have shown that Marines are more likely to die in a crash if they have recently returned from a deployment. In the CNA report, Marines who had been back from deployment for three to six months were 60 percent more at risk of dying in a vehicle accident. A study by USAA, a company that insures thousands of service members, found that its members had a 13 percent increase in at-fault accidents within six months after returning from deployment.
Younger Marines are more likely to be caught in a fatal crash. In the CNA study, 19-year-olds had the highest death rate in non-motorcycle accidents, and the rate steadily declined starting with 21-year-olds. Locally, 21 of the 28 Marines killed in vehicle accidents since 2007 were younger than 25.
However, it is difficult to determine if young men in the military are more likely to die than civilians of the same age, according to both the CNA study and a RAND Corporation report published in 2010. That comparison requires data on the number of miles each group drives. The military does not keep such statistics.
Of the 28 Marines to die in vehicle accidents since 2007, extreme speed was a confirmed factor in more than half of those crashes, according to The Desert Sun analysis. Speeds are unknown in a majority of the remaining crashes, with only about five crashes confirmed to involve vehicles driving at legal speeds.
One of the deadliest crashes involved extreme speed and occurred on July 30, 2011, when a purple Nissan 350Z veered off of Utah Trail in Twentynine Palms.
Lance Cpl. Christian Mogrovejo, 20, was racing another vehicle when he struck a curb, plowed through a fence into Luckie Park, sideswiped a tree, spun and finally crashed into another tree. The car burst into flames. Mogrovejo and his passenger, Pfc. Jeffrey Kendall, 19, died at the scene.
The Nissan was going more than 100 mph at the time of the crash. The speed limit on Utah Trail is 40 mph.
Alcohol is less prevalent than speed, but it can be just as deadly. More than one third of the 28 Marine vehicle deaths involved alcohol. This percentage is about average in the Marine Corps, which leads the military in binge drinking and alcohol abuse.
According to a 2012 report by the Institute of Medicine, a nongovernmental organization under the National Academy of Sciences, drinking has increased in the armed forces since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began. From 1998 to 2008, the share of service members who were binge drinkers increased from 35 percent to 47 percent, and the number of heavy drinkers rose from 15 percent to 20 percent.
Binge drinking and heavy drinking were most prevalent in the Marine Corps.
'Drinking comes with the territory'
Lance Cpl. Joel Cohoe grew up in northwestern New Mexico, enlisting in the Marine Corps on March 24, 2008. He started to abuse alcohol while training to become a heavy equipment operator at Fort Leonard Wood, an Army base in central Missouri.
Cohoe’s drinking problems grew worse when he transferred to Twentynine Palms, where “drinking comes with the territory.” Surrounded by nothing but desert and small towns, Marines turn to booze for entertainment, he said.
On weekends, Cohoe and his friends would head out to Yucca Valley, Palm Springs or drive 2½ hours to Long Beach, ignoring advice from officers to designate a sober driver. No matter how far they traveled, they usually drove back drunk.
“We knew what we were doing,” Cohoe said. “We knew we were taking a huge risk, (but) that was at the back of our mind. … I can honestly say I felt pretty invincible. I had my brothers to the left and right of me. I felt safe, like nothing could happen.”
On Nov. 5, 2010, Cohoe spent the day drinking. First, he downed shots and played pool with his friends at a bar in Palm Desert. Then they drove back to Twentynine Palms, splitting a 40-ounce bottle of malt liquor in the car.
By 6:30 p.m., Cohoe was blackout drunk and still behind the wheel. He pulled into the intersection of Indian Cove Road and Highway 62, cutting off a motorcycle as it shot through the intersection.
The rider, fellow Marine Cpl. Omar Salazar, flew off his bike.
Salazar, an anti-tank missileman with a wife and 5-year-old son, had returned to the desert one month before with a Purple Heart from action in Afghanistan. Forty-eight minutes after the crash, he was pronounced dead at Hi-Desert Medical Center in Joshua Tree.
Cohoe survived. An hour after the accident, his blood-alcohol content was still more than three times the legal limit of .08. He pleaded guilty to driving under the influence causing bodily injury.
Today, Cohoe is serving a five-year sentence at the Oak Glen Conservation Camp, a minimum security facility in the mountains north of Beaumont where inmates work as firefighters. During an interview with The Desert Sun, Cohoe sat on a concrete picnic table, surrounded by tall pines and patches of snow. He keeps his black hair short, as if he was still in the Marine Corps, but wears a prison-orange uniform.
Cohoe expects to be out of jail on Feb. 7, 2015, after serving 85 percent of his sentence. Someday, he hopes to work up the nerve to apologize to Salazar’s widow and son.
“Before all this went down, I took my freedom for granted,” Cohoe said. “I didn’t necessarily know what I had until I lost it all.”
On a sweltering afternoon in April, Lance Cpl. Cody Brackin straddles a black Yamaha on the asphalt of the motorcycle training course inside the Twentynine Palms base.
Brackin and four other Marines gather around the instructor, Frank Santiago, as the lesson ends. They cut their barking bikes so they can hear.
“If you make mistakes out here, isn’t this the place?” Santiago asks.
Brackin is here to break bad habits. Although he used to ride motorcycles back home, whizzing down the icy roads of central Wisconsin, he realized he was taking too many risks. The danger of motorcycles had been pounded into his head at base safety briefings. One fact stuck with him — too many deaths.
“I just don’t want to be one of them,” Brackin said.
This training course is part of the combat center’s robust Marine Corps Traffic Safety Program, known as “Drivesafe,” which includes mandatory training for drivers and motorcyclists.
Marines 25 or younger are required to complete at least four hours of driver training during their first two months at the base. The course is also mandatory for Marines who are considered high-risk drivers and Marines who are at fault in an accident. Marines who own a motorcycle are required to take a series of at least three safe riding courses, plus a refresher course every three years.
Despite the base’s high rate of fatal accidents, the driving program is routinely commended for its efforts to protect Marines. The National Safety Council, which designed defensive driving curriculum taught to young Marines, has honored the base with a best performance award annually since 2008.
James Solomon, a defensive driving trainer for the council, said the base program stands out due to the sheer number of Marines that participate. During fiscal year 2012, 5,844 Marines were trained in the base course.
But Solomon also said a robust safety program was essential at a base like Twentynine Palms. The long, flat, open, desert roads that surround the base are particularly tempting to anyone who has wondered how fast their car or motorcycle can go, Solomon said.
“They’ve always had a good program there,” Solomon said. “It’s when they leave the base that they’re at their prime for being in trouble.”
Most Marines hit the road during the summer months, when they have more vacation time, so the Combat Center holds a “101 Days of Summer” safety campaign in addition to its standard safety briefings. Last May, the base launched this campaign with a guest speaker — a wheelchair-bound Army spouse who was paralyzed in a car accident 16 years ago.
“I know some of you don’t take this stuff seriously, but I’m here to tell you firsthand that it’s very important,” said Kelly Narowski, who was flown in from North Carolina to speak. “It’s not something I took seriously when I was younger, and I’ll end up paying for that for the rest of my life.”
On Sept. 27, 1998, Narowski and a friend were driving a Jeep through the mountains outside Santa Barbara on Highway 1, heading to the beach for a jazz concert.
As the Jeep rounded a curve, Narowski lost control of the wheel and the vehicle careened into a guardrail, bounced off, and then struck the rail again. The first collision smashed her chest against the steering wheel, breaking her ribs and collapsing a lung. The second flung her into the backseat, damaging her spinal cord, leaving her paralyzed from the chest down.
Today, Narowski is a professional speaker who gives safety briefings at military bases throughout the country. She has spoken at Twentynine Palms twice, and feels the blanketing darkness of the desert makes the roads around the base even more dangerous.
Most young people “feel invincible,” but this illusion is more prevalent in military personalities, she said. If Marines can dare to face death on a daily basis, they are more willing to endanger themselves by speeding, driving drunk or not wearing a seat belt. Kolb, the sheriff’s deputy, preaches a similar message when he speaks at the Marine base.
“I do tell them, ‘Don’t have that invincible attitude,’ ” he said. “A lot of them think it won’t happen to them.”
Memorial in the Mojave
Today, a dark wooden cross rises from the sandy shoulder of Highway 62, 16 miles east of Twentynine Palms. When the winds sweep across the desert, red dog tags slap against the cross.
This is where Fowler’s yellow Mustang flipped.
Afalla, who is no longer in the Marine Corps, built the cross in a workshop on base. Once a year or so, Afalla returns to the site to refinish the wind-battered memorial. He is always alone.
On a sunny winter morning in Fullerton, Afalla puffed on a cigarette in his garage.
A tattoo on his left forearm is his take on the traditional soldier’s cross, including boots, the M-16 rifle that Fowler preferred to newer models, a dangling USMC dog tag and a helmet and his initials.
“Don was just taken, after being 10 feet tall and bulletproof,” he said. “I’m here today and I can’t be lazy.”
Fowler joined the Marine Corps on Sept. 9, 2002, soon after graduating from high school in Santee, a suburb northeast of San Diego. After completing boot camp and infantry school, he was assigned as a rifleman to the 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment based in Twentynine Palms.
On Feb. 27, 2006, Fowler deployed to Iraq for the third time, leaving his pregnant wife, Amber. His daughter was born that summer.
“Baby, I love you,” Folwer said in a Fourth of July video message to his wife. “I miss you a lot. I’m sorry you had to go through the whole birth and delivery by yourself, but I’ll make up for it when I get back home.”
His return to the U.S. was premature. A few weeks after sending the video, Fowler was severely wounded by a suicide bomb. On Aug. 1, as he recovered at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., President George W. Bush awarded him a Purple Heart.
In February 2009, Fowler joined the Staff Judge Advocate’s office at the Twentynine Palms Marine base, followed soon by Afalla. The Marines bonded over a mutual desire to unwind in the open desert.
“Nothing could reach you,” Afalla said.
They escaped there for the last time in February 2011. Afalla had recently returned from a deployment to Afghanistan, and was coping with his transition out of the war zone. Fowler had just had his left big toe amputated, a complication from the bomb blast in Iraq.
They lit some firecrackers and drank a few beers. Fowler pointed out constellations, including the archer Sagittarius.
Then they headed back to base. They only made it halfway.
Marines will always drive muscle cars and motorcycles, Afalla said, and many will dismiss briefings on safe driving, especially after returning from deployment.
“I was like, ‘I’ve been in the war. I don’t need to listen to you people,’ ” he said. “You know what I mean? ‘I know how to keep myself alive. Thank you. Thank you for the advice.’ ”
Although he didn’t think many Marines would listen, Afalla did have a message.
“What you can say to a Marine is, ‘You’re not 10 feet tall and bulletproof.’ It doesn’t matter what you’ve survived. You’re still mortal.”